All season the Cottage Grove volleyball team checked off boxes on their to-do list as they put together the most successful season in school history. They rolled through the non-conference schedule, were crowned league champions, amassed playoff victories but the final box went unchecked as the Lions fell to Valley Catholic in five sets (25-23, 21-25, 26-24, 22-25, 11-15) Saturday night in the state championship at Forest Grove.
“I told them, look, second sucks and it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt and you’re going to cry – try not to cry for the picture – but the thing is, we walk out as third or sixth, we’re walking out with smiles. But we’re walking out with second with medals around our neck,” said Cottage Grove head coach Kendra Anderson. “I’ve been to state tournaments as a player and a coach and I’ve never walked out with anything on my neck. And they have a trophy and a ball and they had a huge crowd that was proud of them and I hope they remember that. Right now, it hurts and it hurts because they really wanted it. But they accomplished a lot.”
Cottage Grove’s final-site playoff journey started Friday afternoon when the third-ranked Lions took on eleventh-ranked Tillamook in the quarterfinals. Cottage Grove was victorious (25-10, 23-25, 19-25, 25-15, 15-8) in their first five-set match they have played this season. With experience from playing at the state tournament last season, the team came out ready to go.
“They knew what to expect. They hadn’t been in this gym last year, they hadn’t experienced that. So they seemed a little looser,” said Anderson. Cottage Grove was dominant early including a 10-1 run to close out the set.
But after a fast start, facing troubles with serve-receive and the intensified play of Tillamook’s outside hitters, the Lions dropped the second and third set and were now on the brink of heading to the consolation side of the bracket.
The Lions rose to the occasion with big performances across the board. Reilly Kelty had 25 kills, Cassidy Herbert 15 kills, 14 digs and eight aces and Lauren Witty had 56 assists. Matty Ladd added six kills and four blocks while Sam May had 14 digs. After cruising to a fourth-set victory, the fifth set started off right for the team with three aces from Herbert on the way to a wain.
“They’re mature and they handled that pressure. And we talked about that, that’s another thing that we said. All of you who wanted pressure in checkoff, there’s no more pressure than what we have right now going into this fifth set,” said Anderson. “We’ve got to check it off, enjoy it, embrace the pressure and I think that’s where they realized oh we like it. Let’s enjoy it instead of try to push it away which is where the tightness sometimes comes from.”
In the semifinal match against second-ranked Sweet Home – a team that had lost just two games entering the tournament – the Lions were determined as they defeated the Huskies in straight sets (25-23, 25-16, 25-23).
As a team, the Lions had 10 blocks on the game (Ladd four, Avery Hutchins two, Kelty two and Herbert two). Kelty had 17 kills and 18 digs while Herbert recorded 16 digs, 13 kills and a pair of aces. Witty had 46 assists.
Then came the championship game – Cottage Grove volleyball’s first appearance in the title game. They faced a familiar opponent in Valley Catholic. The two attend the same team camp and played at a tournament this season where the Lions won in group play and the Valiants took the knockout round.
Valley Catholic has been a mainstay in recent state tournament’s and have improved each season. In 2014 they lost in the consolation round, they took fourth in 2015, third in 2016, second place a season ago and this year captured the elusive title.
In the first set of the title match, the evenly-matched teams were back and forth throughout but midway through the set the Lions were down four and were trying to rally back. Behind a kill from freshman Gracie Arnold – who was seeing the floor for the first time at the state tournament – Cottage Grove took a 23-22 lead that they carried to the end of the set.
“That was a switch we made to put a sub in to put her in the front row for a couple more inches, that seemed to help a little bit,” said Anderson of the six-foot Arnold who was put in the rotation to attempt to slow down Valley Catholic’s Kayla Robbins who recorded 42 kills on 92 attempts on her way to being named player of the game. Arnold finished with six blocks, three kills and three digs.
After Cottage Grove took an early 6-1 lead in the second set, it was the Valiants tying things up at eight and then going on a 9-0 that featured three kills from Robbins and another three from Madeline Klopcic. Klopcic finished with nine kills on the day which was the second most for the Valiants.
The third set put on display how evenly-matched these teams were as the first lead that was greater than two points came when the Lions trailed 22-19. The Lions instantly answered with a 5-0 run – that saw kills from Kelty, Herbert and a block from Ladd – to lift the team to a lead.
Kelty, who was named Cottage Grove’s player of the game, finished with 21 kills and 12 digs. Herbert had 23 digs and 12 kills and Witty had 52 assists. Herbert was named to the first team all-tournament team while Kelty and Witty were named to the second team.
In the final Ladd recorded eight kills, five blocks and five digs while Hutchins had five kills and two blocks.
“We set out a game plan and we prepared and they executed it. And we, like I said, we conditioned, we were ready to go. We were ready,” said Anderson.
With a 2-1 lead in sets going into the fourth, the Lions were in a good position to take the match but Valley Catholic’s unrelenting attack carried the game to force a fifth and final set for the title.
As soon as things got started, it was the Valiants with a 5-0 lead.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, if we play our best, that is more than enough. But that’s not our best.’… I feel like they can walk out knowing they played their best,” said Anderson. The Lions turned it around and tied the score at seven a piece and were helped by a pair of aces from May.
But in the final points, it was Valley Catholic edging their way to victory and a Robbins kill sealed the game to give the Valiants a state title.
“Coaching is really hard but (this group) made it easy and they made it enjoyable. I think that’s the hardest part to see the smile not on their face,” said Anderson. Adding, “Second is hard but I think when they get home and realize what they’ve accomplished they’ll be proud of themselves.”